BWW Reviews: Timeless ANYTHING GOES Is 'Musical Theater for the Ages'
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by Jeffrey Ellis
If I were to die very soon, there's no doubt that I would go to heaven, because Rachel York and the all-singing/all-dancing company of Anything Goes took me and a couple of thousand other people up to the heavenly gates with their spectacular opening night performance of "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." In a show brimming over with some of musical theater's very best songs-a veritable cavalcade of American pop standards composed by the legendary Cole Porter-that one particular number, so confidently and knowingly staged by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, fills you with its deeply emotional and richly felt gospel fervor in such a way that you leave the theater with more spirit in your soul.
That the number virtually brings Act Two to a halt (right after it has revived the waiting audience following intermission) is a stunning example of why and how musical theater can be so deeply affecting and so incredibly transformative. It takes the audience unawares, as in their collective mind they are still reeling from the Act One finale-the eight-minute performance of the show's title tune that features the entire company paying tribute to a past theatrical era via some eye-popping visuals and extraordinary tap dancing-that so exemplifies everything that is the quintessential Broadway musical.
Make no mistake about it, this touring production of Roundabout Theatre's Tony Award-winning Anything Goes (which opened for an eight-performance run at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall on Tuesday night), manages in just over two hours to give its audiences exactly what they need. It's an escapist lark that is so smartly written, so beautifully mounted and so expertly performed that if you've never been a fan of musical theater, you'll be singing a different tune afterward. And if you're an undying fan of the genre like me, you'll be singing hosannas to the theatrical gods for blessing us with such a timeless, supremely entertaining work of art that is so uniquely American.
If the aforementioned Mr. Porter, who still personifies the phrase "urbane and sophisticated" well into the 21st century (and long after his death), has taught us anything it is that times have indeed changed since the show first premiered at Broadway's Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon) in 1934. But, if that's the case-and who among us could ever question the wisdom of the clever Mr. Porter (after all, he was a Yale man)-how do you explain the continued popularity of his classic musical, which it can justifiably be argued is the musical of the 1930s.
Hilarity and hijinks abound aboard the S.S. American as it embarks on its journey, taking a motley crew of randy sailors and an almost celebrity-free group of passengers off to England. Thankfully, the scandalous Reno Sweeney, the drop-dead gorgeous evangelist cum nightclub entertainer, and her bevy of sexy Angels, are making the crossing along with a smattering of demi-celebs including debutante Hope Harcourt and her fiancé Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, Wall Street financier Elisha Whitney, public enemy #13 Moonface Martin, a priest with two Chinese converts, an errant stowaway and assorted other lesser -known personages. Even before the ship weighs anchor, it's guaranteed that unlikely, if endlessly humorous, antics are in store.
Timeless and so engaging that you'll want to register your china patterns, Anything Goes is tuneful, madcap and sunny, it's an unmitigated stage spectacle that whisks you away to an earlier, simpler time-one in which the cocktails were potent, libidos were aflame and the very notion of crossing the Atlantic onboard an ocean liner was the very epitome of glamour and elan. Thanks to the skilled artists who bring this sparkling revival to the stage, you can book your own passage to a world you've only imagined or seen through the lens of classic screwball comedies. Just buy a ticket and let the delicious Rachel York, the handsome Erich Bergen, the hilarious Fred Applegate and company take you there.
With an original book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton and Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, updated by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, Anything Goes could easily be a crazy quilt of crummy jokes and bad puns, but thanks to some judicious editing and skillful writing, the book remains somehow fresh and ridiculously funny. Likewise, Porter's original score (well, the one that was first played in 1934) has been submitted to some updates, interpolating songs originally written for Anything Goes that were cut or changing the order of performance of some of the best-known tunes in the score. Frankly, that's why the musical remains so enormously fresh today and that's why audiences will always flock to see Anything Goes. It just never grows old.
In the intervening 78(!) years since Anything Goes bowed on the Great White Way, it's been revived numerous times, providing a star vehicle for its leading ladies (everyone from Ethel Merman to Patti LuPone to Sutton Foster) and York (who's played the role previously in regional theater) takes on the role of Reno Sweeney with a definite understanding of what it means to play such an amazing dame. With a sense of time and place evident from the very first moment we meet Reno (she saunters, she sashays, she undulates-there's no easy way to describe how York's Reno enters a room), York plays her with a showy bravado that's just the ticket for a nightclub chanteuse whose act culminates in a soul-changing religious revival. York's Reno is endlessly fascinating and intriguing, her brassy exterior masking a tender, romantic heart. With her expert delivery of Reno's lines and her command of those glorious Porter songs, York makes the role her own, completely eclipsing your memories of those earlier musical theater heavyweights who've assayed the role before her.
York opens the show's musical program with a heartrending version of "I Get A Kick Out of You" that's romantic and wondrously appealing, then moves on to a splendid duet of "You're the Top" with Bergen that showcases each performer's sublime stage presence, "Friendship" in which York and Applegate pay affectionate homage to vaudeville's greatest stars and a performance of "Anything Goes" that defines the term "showstopper." Clearly, that number is an audience favorite, the ovation for it nearly equal to the standing "O" that comes at show's end.
But, for me at least, it's "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" that gives York her finest moment onstage in Anythng Goes: It's a bluesy, sensual production number that gives Marshall an opportunity to knock your socks off with her vision for the piece, and it's brought to life by the company in such a way that you cannot help but be awestruck by its performance. Hence, to my way of thinking, that's just got to be what heaven is like.
A favorite of Nashville audiences who've delighted to her portrayals of Lili Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate (arguably Porter's other stage masterpiece) and Cruella DeVil in The 101 Dalmatians Musical (each of whom are much like Reno Sweeney in her own way), York is perfectly cast, her thorough knowledge of musicals and the women who bring them to life almost encyclopedic. That knowledge informs her performance with all the necessary elements essential to crafting such an impressive portrayal. As a result, her Reno is completely believable, enormously accessible and captivatingly appealing. She sings, she dances, she enthralls. Swell, huh?
If I left the theater a little bit more in love with Rachel York than I was initially (something I cannot deny), it's because of her no-holds-barred performance and the knowing way in which she approaches every scene, every song and every moment in Anything Goes. Truth be told, I have a serious case of the hot pants for both York and her trio of leading men.
Bergen, charming and handsome in that matinee idol sort of way that you may have thought extinct by now, is ideal as the playboy Billy Crocker, imbuing the character with good humor and an easy, relaxEd Grace. Matching York step-by-step, note-for-note in their musical numbers, he proves her musical theater counterpart. In his scenes opposite Alex Finke (as debutante Hope Harcourt), Bergen displays a certain romantic flair, a carefree flirt who has suddenly found the love of his life. He walks a fine line in Anything Goes-that which separates the cad from the romantic hero-with finesse, and his heavenly voice will leave you breathless, especially during "All Through the Night," his exquisite number performed in counterpoint by the lovely, composed and elegant Finke. Their shared duet on "It's De-Lovely," backed up by a quartet of graceful, dancing couples choreographed to rival Fred and Ginger's best is a colorful, visually stunning production number amid a show full of the same.
Applegate's finely honed timing shines throughout the show, his delivery of even the most groanable of lines wonderfully daft and off-kilter, putting the screws to the balls (well, you get my drift) and making Moonface so much more than comic relief. His performance of "Be Like the Bluebird" is cleverly performed and artfully staged.
As Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Hope Harcourt's fiancé from among the British aristocracy), Edward Staudenmayer very nearly steals the stage right out from under his co-stars. His performance is just slightly over-the-top in a way that makes shows like this so much fun, but it's well-grounded in reality. In other words, Staudenmayer pushes Evie right to the slapstick line and nudges it with his toe, making his malaprop-laden dialogue all the more appealing in the process. His duet with York to "The Gypsy in Me" gives Act Two another showstopping moment.
Among the ensemble cast-which includes native Nashvillians Jeremy Benton and Chuck Wagner-Joyce Chittick stands out as Erma, the tart-tongued and hot-to-trot moll of public enemy #1 Snake-eyes Johnson, strutting about the stage with unequaled sassiness with a dollop of healthy sexiness that makes her an audience favorite. When she is given her moment in the spotlight near the end of Act Two to perform "Buddie, Beware," it's an almost unexpected lagniappe after a show filled with dazzling production numbers. (And, let's face it: Who doesn't love sailor pants, especially when worn by a sextet of toned and trained hoofers?)
This revival of Anything Goes-the first of Roundabout Theatre's critically lauded and audience-endorsed musical revivals to be mounted for a national tour-is replete with some of the finest, most creative stage design you're apt to find in any theatre. Derek McLane's original design for the Broadway production is somewhat scaled down to make touring a possibility, yet it retains all the necessary visual spectacle to make audiences from Nashville to San Francisco feel like they're seeing a Broadway-caliber production. Howell Binkley's lighting design is beautifully done, adding to the show's visual aesthetics, while the costumes designed by the late Martin Pakledinaz are exquisite evocations of period fashion made to withstand the rigors of an athletically challenging, all-dancing show.
You're probably asking yourself if I've been too overblown in my praise for Anything Goes or if, possibly, I've had a little too much bourbon in my water…well, the answer, is no. In fact, I've held back. I haven't mentioned the flush in my cheeks, the dampness in my eyes as the whole experience unfolded before me on the Jackson Hall stage. I smiled all the way through the show, I tapped my feet in time with the music performed by conductor Jay Alger and his amazingly adept orchestra (which includes 13 Nashville musicians), and I exercised all sorts of control to prevent me from leaping to my feet at the end of every number.
Anything Goes is just that good. Hell, it's better. If you are a fan of musical theater, but you've been told this is an old-fashioned show that just can't cut it in the high-falutin' 21st century, let me assure you that you have been wrongly informed. This is a musical for the ages and you just can't miss it.